The Measure of Rulership
According to Leane Sharif, “to lead is neither to push nor to pull” (The Dragon Reborn, Punishments). Judging by events of the series, Jordan may not have agreed with her, but he did provide us with a variety of political structures to study.
The first we see is that of the Two Rivers, an ideal land of high literacy, stability and equity. Many fantasy series start off from just such a haven. Both men and women have their separate political structures: councils of elected ‘elders’ which interact dynamically. The position of leader of the women’s council, Wisdom, is for life, while that of the men, the Mayor, is re-elected regularly (The Eye of the World, Glossary). Everyone is free to discuss every issue. This works well for thinly-populated peaceful areas and is the system in other deeply rural regions on the mainland. However, in a time of crisis when the Trollocs invaded, the Two Rivers adopted a lord, Perrin, by popular decision.
Most other nations have monarchs, whether they are elected by merit, or are nobles or aristocrats who have inherited their position. In distant Shara, the rumour is of a puppet monarchy of alternating king and queens controlled by female channellers (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and Lord of Chaos, Threads Woven of Shadow).
Among the Aes Sedai, leadership is based largely on an inherited quality (strength in the Power, and age, which again depends on saidar strength) with a lesser contribution from merit (eg speed of learning, skill).
The majority of Seanchan leadership positions are earned by merit, but position in the ruling Imperial family is based on inheritance and merit (one can be adopted into the Imperial family for great achievement (The Path of Daggers, A Time for Iron)). The Crystal Throne itself is almost a tombola gained through a war of attrition by the most ‘meritorious’ (defined as surviving) of the Empress’ offspring.
The Sea Folk monarchy has a strict meritocracy. The Aiel also have a meritocracy. In both societies, each member follows the law and customs of that society.
In complete contrast, Tear was ruled by a council of aristocrats and this oligarchy is probably the most extreme example of inherited power and its misuses.
It is instructive to compare the Tairen system with that of the Aiel. The Aiel prove themselves worthy before given leadership, yet still are never treated as nobles or monarchs. A clan chief is not a king. The law is applied equally to all.
Tairen leaders inherit their position, yet have absolute power. Their laws were not equally applied. Nobles could do whatever they liked to those lower in the social strata than they.
Until the advent of Rand, both Aiel and Tairen societies were bound by tradition and founded on falsehood. For the common good, the Aiel leaders kept secret from the ‘commoners’ that once they were as gai’shain and Tinkers now are. The Tairens had the illusion that nobles are different in kind to commoners and that the Stone was safe from invasion and channelling. As Juilin and Mat were invading the Stone, Juilin said of High Lord Darlin, newly knocked unconscious by Mat:
“He does not look so mighty lying there,” he said wonderingly. “He does not look so much greater than me.”Once Rand takes the Stone, he changes the laws in an attempt to even out this imbalance. In both lands Rand stripped away all illusions.
- The Dragon Reborn, Into the Stone
At first Andor seems an ideal monarchy, with its sound legal system and proud, outspoken citizenry, but the War of Succession and lack of equal access of males to rule is a distinct minus. The Borderlands, who cannot afford politicking or uncertainty or disunity, may have the most sound monarchies.
The series firmly shows that those who are eager to lead are usually the last ones who should do so, especially those who would do anything to gain power. As for elected positions, no matter who is elected, the office-holder is always a politician even if only out of necessity. The best leaders are reluctant, accepting the role only out of duty.